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I am beginning to think Agent Smith is right – we are not mammals, we’re a virus

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Fraction Jackson said on July 5th, 2008 at 4:26 am

A quick search turned up a couple other articles on the subject:

Wall Street Journal

New Scientist

Seriously kind of scary. I mean, how the hell do you run out of an element?

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Charlotte said on July 5th, 2008 at 8:24 am

I’m not sure I grasp what the issue is – if the element is becoming “extinct”, I’d love to know how it’s being destroyed. I rather gathered that elements needed to be changed on an atomic level in order to be “destroyed”. Or is it simply being dispersed in such a way that we can’t use it anymore? In which case – it’s not really becoming extinct, and we haven’t really removed an “essential building block” from the universe. It’s just been moved around a bit.

I mean, I’m all for conservation and whatnot, but that article seemed a little misleading in its weepiness.

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Given that just about the entire planet is coated with a layer of iridium, I suspect Silverberg is either overstating or oversimplifying his case a bit. Which doesn’t make it not true, just not necessarily as dire. (And, appropriate to an article written for Asimov’s, by 2017-2037 we may be mining asteroids, where some of these elements are much more plentiful than they ever have been on Earth.)

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Of course we have to be able to get to the asteroids in a large scale, useful way in order to mine them, and our ability to do so may be dependent on some of the very resources we’re using up right now. It’s kind of like saying “When the planet gets overpopulated we’ll just expand into the solar system.” when in reality we’re unlikely to be able to divert anywhere near enough resources to building space habitats to make a dent in the population.

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A few comments. As materials science becomes more sophisticated, it uses the specific properties of each element much more thoroughly. This allows some incredibly advanced materials to be made, but with the trade-off that they contain ingredients which can’t be substituted.

Each person in what we laughingly call the First World has an associated capital stock of metal, not necessarily in our personal stuff, but in the infrastructure which keeps our civilization going. For example, in North America, we all use about 500 pounds of copper each, tied up in things like the electrical grid. Nearly all of this metal was mined after 1900.

There are about a billion people in the First World. There are over five billion people who want to be there too. To get there, they’ll need their 500 pounds of copper. There’s a small problem, because most of the easy copper ore is gone. (Actually, copper is a bad example, because there are fair substitutes for many of its uses. But gallium, a semiconductor which will melt in the palm of your hand, not so much. You can buy some as an educational toy, and if you’re at all into that sort of thing, I recommend it.)

Well, why can’t we scrape up that thin iridium layer in the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary clays? or extract the stuff from seawater, like Fritz Haber proposed with gold? Because it’s crazy dilute and thoroughly mixed up. It’s like trying to find the one grain of blue sand in a random bucketful from a beach. Even at theoretical maximum efficiency, it’s very energy intensive, which just shifts the problem over to a different resource.

What about asteroid mining? turns out that it’s actually less energy intensive for most elements to try extracting them on Earth, using the one grain of blue sand method.

Still, both are cheaper than industrial isotope production, which I gather Canada has some recent problems with.

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Cookie McCool said on July 5th, 2008 at 12:46 pm

The apocalypse is taking FOREVER.

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Given that just about the entire planet is coated with a layer of iridium, I suspect Silverberg is either overstating or oversimplifying his case a bit.

Bear in mind that the article is referring to a shortage of indium (element 49), not iridium (element 77).

That said I would hardly call copper, gallium, et al. “endangered” or facing “extinction.” Comparing these substances to the dodo only works if there are still living dodos inside our machines (running frantically on treadmills, I suppose) and viable populations of dodos in outer space.

Not that I want for us to have to start getting supplies of copper by cannibalizing electronics or mining asteroids, but the point is that the problem is not “these elements will be gone someday and can never come back,” it’s “the methods we use to obtain these elements will become prohibitively expensive and inconvenient.”

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Bear in mind that the article is referring to a shortage of indium (element 49), not iridium (element 77).

When are we going to do something about the increasing shortage of serifs in modern society, leading to ever more frequent breakdowns in communication? Where will Robert Silverberg and Asimov’s Magazine be then, hmm?

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so we’ll finally see companies digging through our landfills for recyclable materials. yes!

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Chris Russell said on July 5th, 2008 at 6:36 pm

Does anybody else read this story and think of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm? I read it back in middle school, and one of the elements (ha ha) of the story was that a significant amount of resources was taken from mining landfills because that was where most of the plastic/rubber/metal was.

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“Of course we have to be able to get to the asteroids in a large scale, useful way in order to mine them, and our ability to do so may be dependent on some of the very resources we’re using up right now. It’s kind of like saying “When the planet gets overpopulated we’ll just expand into the solar system.” when in reality we’re unlikely to be able to divert anywhere near enough resources to building space habitats to make a dent in the population.”

well, sure, but we can always just send out little probes that point the asteroids toward earth and then mine them after they’ve hit the ground. problem solved!

what?

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As it has been said elsewhere, the problem is not that we’ve used up any significant % of the total amount of these elements in the earth’s crust, it’s that we’ve used up the easily accessible bits. Getting more will be substantially harder and more energy-intensive: it all comes down to energy, in the end. And (ruling out, of course, some sort of OHMYGAWD cold fusion/zero point energy/whatver tech breakthrough), we don’t have any alternatives on hand that will make energy _cheaper_, now that the oil demand is starting to push hard on supply.

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